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Why Alexa is a game-changer for the blind

Why Alexa is a game-changer for the blind

Imagine waking up, opening your eyes…and everything’s a blur. In a panic, you rub your eyes hard, trying to lift the fog but it’s still there. A fog so thick you can’t even see your own hands in front of you, the kind you only ever encounter the morning after a strong storm.

Okay, so that may be extreme. How about instead, you imagine you’ve just picked up one of your favorite magazines and are trying to read read the headlines on the page. You squint hard, frantically trying to laser focus your vision onto the text. But still struggle to make out what it says. So you literally have to grab a magnifying glass to make the page more legible.

For you, this was just a thought exercise but for the more than 3 million Americans living with blindness or visual impairment, this is their daily life.

For them, even the small things such as getting the news or communicating with loved ones, things the sighted take for granted, pose a challenge and often take much longer than anyone would like.

Technology has often been hailed as the great equalizer but it wasn’t until recently that technology truly enabled those living with blindness/visual impairment to function like those with normal sight.

Until now, technology has just been making incremental improvements to address the needs of the blind/visually impaired. But with the advent of the Amazon Echo devices, like the Amazon Echo Plus, assistive technology for the blind has advanced by leaps and bounds.

Alexa is a total game changer for those living with blindness/visual impairment and in this article we’ll explain exactly why.

Why is Alexa good for the blind?

While technological advancements have happened for the blind, they’ve paled in comparison to the capabilities technology provides for the normal-sighted. Due to their disability, technology, which generally comes with a screen, can be quite difficult to use. The blind are forced to use assistive technology such as screen readers and dictation software in order to utilize screened technology.

With its focus on voice and audio, Amazon Echo brings a paradigm shift to how technology impacts the lives of the blind. Voice technology puts the blind on a more level playing field with normal-sighted people. It gives them the ability to accomplish the same tasks with a similar speed and ease. Tasks such as checking the weather, getting news updates, and, most importantly, communicating with loved ones.

Something simple those of us with normal sight often take for granted like texting our family can pose significant challenges for those in the blind community.

Imagine all the steps required to send a text, from a blind person’s point of view.

  1. First, you have to fiddle around to find your phone.  
  2. Then unlock it by whatever means but that’s no small feat. As a side note, the security measures meant to enable privacy for those of us who can see add hurdle upon hurdle for those with who are blind.
  3. Next you have to, using screen reader software, find your messaging app.
  4. Select it.
  5. Find the contact to message.
  6. Speak your message into dictation software or struggle to type it out if you choose that route.
  7. Finally, hit send. And that’s if everything goes as planned and your dictation software heard you right the first time.

Whereas for a sighted person it’s a matter of seconds to shoot off a text; this process, while doable, can take several minutes and is more complicated for someone who is blind.

Now with Alexa that time is cut down to mere seconds. It’s just a matter of asking, “Alexa, call Jacob.”

For essential things like staying in touch with loved ones, Amazon Echo provides a more efficient way to accomplish these for people living with blindness/visual impairment. Because everything is voice-activated, Alexa provides a hands-free and eyes-free process for the blind to use technology. Someone who’s blind can get information several times faster than when using other means. All of this functionality greatly increases the independence, someone who is living with blindness, can have in their life.

To reiterate, Alexa is a game-changer for the blind. She can greatly enhance their quality of life. Using an Amazon Echo, the blind can tap into a wealth of capabilities at speeds with which they couldn’t before.

How is Alexa good for the blind/visually impaired?

Effortless communication

As illustrated in the exercise above, simple things like texting for people living with blindness or visual impairment can be a difficult and challenging process to navigate. Alexa turns what used to be five or more steps into just one command, thus greatly increasing the speed at which someone who is blind can call their spouse, children, or get help if they are in need.

The blind can use Alexa’s calling functionality to not only make hands-free phone calls, but easily dictate texts and receive messages to and from their loved ones. This allows them to actively participate in the small things like sending life updates or holiday greetings. Simply add a contact then say, “Alexa, call Zack.”

Amazon Echo’s ability to drop-in to other connected Echo devices allows someone who’s blind to broadcast messages to the entire family without requiring anyone to pick up a phone.

Alexa better allows the blind to connect with those whom they care about. It is an amazing and successful feeling to be able to easily communicate with loved ones.

Search made simple

Although, objectively, Alexa struggles in area of search compared to the Google Assistant on Google Home, she still provides significant time savings when it comes to accessing information and performing functions that users have come to expect on the web. In addition to answering the general trivia questions one might ask Google, Alexa can easily provide information about local restaurants or movie times and locations.

She can do complex calculations and provide measurement conversions. She makes getting the contact info for local area businesses or the mileage from one destination to another much simpler; “Alexa, how many miles is it from here to Whole Foods?” For someone who is blind, having to look up any of this information is a major burden. Alexa significantly reduces the length of time which it takes them to get information.

Fashion assistant

Getting ready in the morning can also pose a challenge for those living with blindness. Unsurprisingly, the blind sometimes struggle with wardrobe selection. Not being able to see which outfits one has pulled out of their closet can make for some awkward interactions when they enter the office unknowingly looking like a mess. As one blind man put it, “Nobody wants to show up at the office and be told they’re wearing a striped tie with a checkered shirt.”

The Amazon Echo Look is poised to help someone who is blind with this problem. Using a combination of machine learning and style data from fashion stylists, the Echo Look can provide users with feedback on wardrobe selection. The small device can go a long way in helping someone who is blind feel more independent in their day-to-day life when it comes to looking their best.

Eyes-free access to news/information

Alexa’s voice activation feature means someone who is blind no longer has to struggle to get access to global/local news. By asking Alexa to play NPR, give highlights from ESPN, or check on their favorite stock ticker quotes, blind users are able to get all their information via audio; a format that is more easily digestible for them.

Basic things like getting information about the date, time, day, or weather (in their location and other destinations) can be a much more lengthy and involved process for those who are blind but Alexa removes all the complexity. On top of that, she provides the latest news so they are never in the dark about what is going on in the world.

Powerful time & list management

Managing a schedule or list is challenging for anybody, let alone someone who is blind. Keeping track of a calendar or list is a very visual task. This is because no one can store all the information in their head, eventually it has to be written down.

Alexa gives the blind more capabilities when it comes to time (alarms, schedules, etc.) and list management; providing a ten-fold improvement from prior means. There is no need for pen and paper anymore as Alexa will digitally record things for them. A blind person can have their calendar appointments spoken aloud or get an overview of their day by simply asking, “Alexa what are my appointments for today.” The calendar functionality allows them to easily keep track of their daily schedule.

No longer do they even have to touch their phone to set an alarm or reminder. Blind users can set timers for when they’re cooking or alarms for waking up. They can add, remove, or modify events on their calendar or to-do list simply by speaking to Alexa.  

Listen to Sam from The Blind Life (video), explain step-by-step how he used to have to update his to-do list before Alexa.

Essentially the process was:

  1. Launch the app on the phone.
  2. Get a magnifying glass to actually see what he was doing.
  3. Tap on the “plus” button to add something.
  4. Dictate on the phone what the item was or try to type it out.
  5. Then hit the “add” button.

Again, it’s not complicated but it involves several steps that make things take longer than they should for someone who is blind. Amazon Echo provides a much easier and more efficient way to accomplish this.

Simple home automation and security

An Amazon Echo provides greater accessibility around the home for those living with blindness/visual impairment. Alexa can remove the need to get up and maneuver around the house just to a flip a light switch. Now, “Alexa turn on/off the lights,” effectively achieves the same result with much less effort and less chance of an accident.

By connecting other devices in the home such as alarm systems, surveillance cameras, lights, outlets, and thermostats to Alexa, the blind can experience more convenience in operating these other systems. The ability to set the thermostat with audio confirmation as opposed to manually adjusting the dial by feel provides a far superior experience for someone who is blind.

Additionally, the ability to lock the front door or give the illusion that the home is occupied, using a third party skill, helps to protect the blind from being easily targeted by criminals.

Plus, skills for the blind and more!

There are many more uses of Alexa, that can benefit those who are blind, that we haven’t touched on here but did cover in our last article in this series (check it out here), such as listening to music, reading audiobooks, waking up to celebrity voices, or having Alexa tell a joke or interesting fact 1. Blind users can tap into a host of third-party Alexa skills to add to their experience. Below we provide a list for the best Alexa skills for blind users. And if you’re a Prime member, the Amazon Echo devices come with even more built-in content available. If not, you can start your 30-day free trial of Prime here.

Which Amazon Echo is good for the blind & why?

Our #1 Rated

4.7/5

4.7 out of 5

Details

  • A premium/fuller sound
  • With built-in smart home hub
  • Fabric shell available in three modern colors
  • Wi-Fi simple setup
  • Built-in temperature sensor
  • Local voice control – so if the Wi-Fi goes off you can still turn the lights on/off
  • Medium priced device

Our #2 Rated

4.5/5

4.5 out of 5

Details

  • Small & compact size
  • Great sound quality for its size
  • Premium fabric rim – soft to the touch
  • Can place in multiple rooms to have Alexa always there to help you
  • Can pair multiple Echo Dots for stereo sound
  • Lowest costing device

Our #3 Rated

4/5

4 out of 5

Details

  • Alexa enabled with hands-free camera
  • Outfit and fashion recommendations / analysis
  • Style check feature
  • Camera mute button
  • Poorer audio quality compared to other devices in the Amazon Echo 1st generation family

Best Alexa skills for the blind/visually impaired

GrubHub skill – ordering meals delivered straight to the home

Reorder meals for delivery or takeout in seconds from all your favorite Grubhub restaurants.

This is a hands-free time saver for Grubhub customers — and getting started is easy! Just enable the skill, link your Grubhub account, and say “Alexa, open Grubhub,” or “Alexa, tell Grubhub I’m hungry.”

If you’re a first-time user, Alexa will ask for your preferred delivery address and payment type. Just select your preferences to complete setup. You’ll be able to enjoy the convenience of re-ordering your favorite dishes and meals with Alexa anytime.

Peapod skill – groceries delivered from a local stop N’ shop store. Can tell you your delivery time if you schedule it.

“Alexa, ask Peapod to send more pears!” Now when you’re running low and your hands are tied, just ask for what you need.

• Reorder your last Peapod order
• Add products as you think of them – if Alexa can’t guess the right one first, she’ll leave you a reminder on Peapod’s desktop and mobile apps
• Check your scheduled delivery and order cutoff times

The first time you use Alexa’s Ask Peapod skill, she’ll ask you to create an account or link your existing one through your Alexa app; just sign in to your existing account or create a new one, and then you’re cooking.

Uber skill – Use Alexa to summon rides for themselves and their guide dog

Get a reliable ride in minutes with the Uber skill. Simply say “Alexa ask Uber for a ride” and an UberX will be there in minutes. If you would like a different car type, you can say things like “Alexa, ask Uber to order an Uber Black.” From low-cost to premium, every ride option feels like an upgrade to the everyday.

TuneIn radio skill

TuneIn Live brings you the best collection of thousands of live sporting events and premium news stations to your Alexa-enabled device.
Click the “Enable” button or say “Alexa, open TuneIn Live” to open the skill.

OVER 20,000 LIVE SPORTING EVENTS:
Enjoy either the home or away call for every single live game from the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL seasons. Try asking:
– Play the Yankees
– What games are on?
– Listen to the Golden State Warriors

NPR skill

NPR News: The official NPR and public radio station player.

A thriving media organization at the forefront of digital innovation, NPR creates and distributes award-winning news, information, and music programming to a network of 975 independent stations. Through them, NPR programming reaches 26 million listeners every week.

Our groceries skill – Great for sharing the same shopping list with multiple users

This skill lets you add items to the shopping lists on your OurGroceries app. The app keeps your grocery lists instantly synchronized on all the iPhone and Android smartphones in your household—and it’s free! It also tracks recipes, takes photos of items, and scans barcodes.

Just install the app on your phone, enter your email address in the “List sharing” screen in preference, then enable this skill. After saying, “Alexa, open OurGroceries”, you’ll be guided through the process of connecting your Echo to your OurGroceries account.

Burglar Deterrent skill

[NOW UPDATED!] Burglar Deterrent is designed to help protect your home from unwanted visitors when you are out. It will give the illusion that your house is occupied using realistic audio to deter potential intruders. A would-be thief will be convinced someone is performing daily activities such as cleaning, talking, laughing, working in the home office and preparing food. This will complement your existing security arrangements, giving you an extra level of reassurance.

Choose the environment that suits the location of your Echo device:
– Living room (Sitting Room, Lounge, Den, or any general room) [NEW! – Choose from Day or Night version]
– Kitchen (Dining Area)
– Bathroom (Washroom, Shower)
– Home Office (Study)
– Guard Dog (Barking dog)
– Games Room (Playroom) [NEW!],
– Party [NEW!],
– Baby crying (Nursery) [NEW!],
– Garage (Workshop, Shed, D.I.Y.) [NEW!]

Conclusion

Touchscreens are the enemy of the blind as many lack even the most basic of accessibility functionality. Given that Alexa was built voice-first and with accessibility in mind, it’s no wonder Amazon Echo has proven to be a blessing for the blind. When someone who is blind uses Alexa, she becomes ingrained as a core part of their life.

But what about the downsides?

From our research, users who are blind do initially struggle to have Alexa understand them. Because they haven’t had much experience with the online query syntax of the web, they often are slow to respond or make requests in long form sentences such as, “Alexa, tell us the origin and, uh, well, the significance, I suppose, of Christmas.”

Since Alexa draws her request syntax directly from the online query syntax we’re all so used to, blind users without much experience on the web may encounter initial frustrations with Alexa not being able to provide a useful response. Eventually, they get the hang of it.

There’s also the issue of price. Technology this game-changing must come with a hefty price tag, right? We believe the Amazon Echo prices are very affordable as the most recent generation of devices can range anywhere from $50 to $200. See above for our recommended picks that won’t break the bank.

Aside from those, the topic of privacy will undoubtedly come up. But while we, with normal sight, might automatically complain about privacy we often neglect how much these Amazon Echo devices are benefiting those living with blindness/visual impairment. No longer are the blind forgotten when it comes to technological advances. We hope that this is a continued trend amongst technology companies in keep accessibility top of mind when developing new technology.

Though anyone can benefit from having an Amazon Echo around the house, it’s especially useful for those with blindness or visual impairment. Alexa is a great investment for someone who is blind. The time savings alone are more than worth it.

Bonus Tips

For someone who is blind, to get the most of their Amazon Echo, they’ll want to turn on the audio feedback functionality so that the Echo will play a sound when Alexa is ready to take their request.

If you’d like more in-depth Alexa-related content like this join the mailing list!

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